23 January 2024

Scottish Government was ‘mocking’ public during pandemic – Conservatives

23 January 2024

The Scottish Conservatives have accused the Scottish Government of “mocking” the public during the pandemic, amid the storm over WhatsApp messages at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Opposition MSPs quizzed Deputy First Minister Shona Robison about the government’s policy on deleting messages, with Labour also saying the government appeared to be “laughing at the public”.

Ms Robison said it is important the inquiry is allowed to get on with its work and any lessons would be learned.

Earlier on Tuesday, national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch gave evidence to the inquiry, which heard he had not retained any informal, one-to-one messages relating to management of the pandemic.

However he denied deleting them every day in a “pre-bed ritual” as one of his messages seen by the inquiry had suggested.

Raising the issue in the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Tory health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “We know the shameful culture of secrecy came from the very top, with Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney deleting all their messaging.

“The same Nicola Sturgeon who stood at the daily briefings with a pretense of moral superiority.

“And yet behind the scenes it is clear the Scottish Government was mocking us, believing none of this would ever come to light.”

Ms Robison replied: “What is important, of course, is that the inquiry is allowed to do its job in scrutinising all of the decision-making, the messages.

“It’s for the inquiry, obviously, to determine if it has concerns about the application of mobile messaging policy or their content.”

She said lessons would be learned from the pandemic and Scotland is the only part of the UK to have its own separate inquiry in addition to the UK-wide one.

Dr Gulhane also raised Scottish Government cabinet minutes which showed that restarting work on an independence referendum was considered.

The Deputy First Minister said it is “clear the focus of the Scottish Government was on the pandemic and on dealing with the issues of the day”.

She said the inquiry is interrogating decision-making just as it did in London, saying: “Some of that is very uncomfortable, there is no doubt about it.”

Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, Dame Jackie Baillie, said Prof Leitch appeared to have advised Humza Yousaf “how to avoid the rules” – referring to a discussion the two had on mask-wearing.

She said: “It is clear that Jason Leitch wiped his messages completely and seem to find the period during the pandemic all quite funny, judging from the messages we have seen.”

Ms Baillie continued: “If the Scottish Government agrees that Jason Leitch’s behaviour was inappropriate, is it not time that he was sacked?”

Ms Robison said it is not “fair” to focus on any individual and Prof Leitch was not present to defend himself.

She said it is important that salient decisions are captured in the government’s recording system.

The government’s code of practice states information should only be kept for as long as needed and the medium can be deleted as long as this requirement is met.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar told the PA news agency the “flippant behaviour” shown at the inquiry appeared to show the government was “at times laughing at the public”.

He said: “The evidence appears to show a deeper-seated culture now entrenched in the organisation where secrecy, cover-up and making light of very serious situations – which I think is just going to shock people right across the country.”

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